Archive for the ‘Big Government’ Category

I’ve written many times about socialism, which is sometimes a frustrating task because the definition is slippery.

I suspect the average supporter of Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez thinks that socialism is big government, with lots of handouts financed by class warfare taxation. Since that’s the common perception, is that the definition we should use?

The technical definition of socialism, though, is government ownership of the means of production, which entails central planning, price controls, and other forms of intervention. So, at the risk of being pedantic, is that how the term should be defined?

As an economist, I prefer the latter approach. Which is why I’ve pushed back (though not necessarily in a favorable way) against those who called Obama a socialist.

A few years ago, I tried to reconcile this definitional conflict by creating a diagram to show that there are several strains of socialism (or statism, leftism, progressivism, or whatever you want to call it).

I also created a 2×2 matrix to show how various nations should be characterized when measuring redistribution and intervention.

If you think I’m somehow being unfair, check out this recent column in the New York Times. Even an advocate for socialism has a hard time saying what it is.

Public support for socialism is growing. Self-identified socialists like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib are making inroads into the Democratic Party… Membership in the Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist organization in the country, is skyrocketing, especially among young people. …what do we mean, in 2018, when we talk about “socialism”? …Socialism means different things to different people. For some, it conjures the Soviet Union and the gulag; for others, Scandinavia and guaranteed income. But neither is the true vision of socialism. What the socialist seeks is freedom. …when the basic needs of life compel submission to the market and subjugation at work, we live not in freedom but in domination. Socialists want to end that domination: to establish freedom from rule by the boss, …from the obligation to sell for the sake of survival.

His claim that socialism is freedom sounds bizarre.

And it is bizarre. But it’s not new. It’s the crazy idea of “positive liberty” that was the basis of FDR’s so-called economic bill of rights.

Basically, we should all be “free” to live off of other people (though this cartoon sums up why that approach doesn’t work).

Though that’s just the start. Socialism eventually will mean…well, the proletariat will decide at some point.

There’s not much discussion, yet, of classic socialist tenets like worker control or collective ownership of the means of production. …today’s socialism is just getting started. …In magazines and on websites, in reading groups and party chapters, socialists are debating the next steps: state ownership of certain industries, worker councils and economic cooperatives… Mass action — sometimes illegal, always confrontational — will determine socialism’s final form. …As Marx and Engels understood…it is workers who get us there, who decide what and where “there” is. That, too, is a kind of freedom. Socialist freedom.

Is that the “freedom” to set up gulags and exterminate enemies?

I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Writing for Bloomberg, Professor Noah Smith is both sympathetic and worried about the putative resurgence of socialism.

Observing the disaster that is Venezuela, many free-market proponents are inclined to say that socialism always fails. To bolster their claim, they can also point to the Soviet Union, to North Korea, or to Vietnam and China before those countries implemented free-market reforms. Those self-described communist systems generated vast poverty and famine… defenders of socialism have their own historical examples to cite. …Though one can quibble over the definition of the word “socialism,” there’s little question that the so-called social democracies of Denmark and Sweden offer some of the world’s highest living standards.

That being said, Smith is concerned that advocates of socialism don’t understand the risks of too much government. He cites a couple of examples, including the failure of price controls and also how India suffered from statism before starting reforms in 1991.

But his comments about the United Kingdom and the Thatcher reforms may be the most important, because the Brits actually tried real socialism (i.e., government ownership of the means of production).

…the U.K. provides a cautionary tale. After World War II, the U.K. nationalized industries like steel, coal, aviation, electricity, rail transport and some manufacturing. But the British economy lagged behind its continental European peers during the midcentury. Manufacturing and transportation especially stagnated. By the time Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in 1979, both France and Italy were richer in per capita terms… Thatcher unleashed a wave of privatizations, along with other free-market policies. Britain…growth accelerated, and by 1997 it had caught up and passed France and Italy.

Here’s a chart from his column showing how the U.K. fell behind when it was socialist but then regained the lead following pro-market reforms.

Professor Smith’s cautionary words are noteworthy since he (based on having read dozens of his columns) leans to the left.

And here’s another criticism of socialism, this time from an unabashed liberal (in the modern sense of the word, not classical liberalism). Bill Scher has a withering review of a new book by a group of socialists.

Felix Biederman, Matt Christman, Brendan James, Will Menaker and Virgil Texas—of the socialist, satirical podcast Chapo Trap House…make bank by selling you a candy-coated version of socialism, one that may offend real socialists even more than liberal gruel-peddlers like myself. …The indoctrination begins with a condemnation of America’s containment of Soviet communism. …“Who cares?” if the Soviets won the Cold War, they write. …After blaming American-led capitalism for the world’s ills, the authors take aim at their favorite target: liberals. …In their evisceration of liberals and establishment Democrats, we get the usual left-wing criticisms of the Barack Obama and Bill Clinton presidencies… The Chapo crew’s romp through the history of feckless liberalism doesn’t stop with Obama and Clinton. Jimmy Carter is slammed… Lyndon Johnson is excoriated… Not even Franklin Delano Roosevelt escapes.

By the way, I can’t resist interjecting to point out that socialists had good reasons to condemn Bill Clinton’s presidency. After all, economic freedom increased during his tenure.

Though I suppose they also should be free to criticize other Democratic administrations for the supposed sin of not moving to the left at a faster rate.

The conclusion of Scher’s review is brutal.

After slogging through 276 of the book’s 282 pages of bad history…, the authors finally get around to their grand plan. Spoiler alert! This is literally it, in its entirety:

“After setting everyone on equal footing (by seizing the billionaires’ money, socializing their wealth, and handing the keys of production over to workers), you’re looking at an economy that requires something like a three-hour workday, with machines taking care of most of the drudgery; and—as our public fund pays for things like health care, education, scientific research, and infrastructure—all this technology actually makes work quicker, easier, and more enjoyable.”

The notion that socialism is going to slough off all that annoying labor to our forthcoming legion of robot slaves may come as a surprise to many socialists. …The Chapo hosts’ aversion to hard work extends to this book. Why suffer the details of how this nonworkers’ paradise, free of paper pushing and ditch digging, is going to be realized, when you can take in more than $1 million a year by dressing up stale arguments and thin policy ideas with inside jokes? The infomercial socialists of Chapo have exploited the free market expertly, and at least saved themselves from the 9-to-5 prison.

Until reading this review, I confess that these clowns were unknown to me.

But I’m going to take a wild guess that (like Michael Moore) they don’t share their wealth with the masses.

Let’s close by now perusing a serious economic analysis of socialism. Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute looks at Why Socialism Failed.

Socialism is the ultimate Big Lie. While it falsely promises prosperity, equality, and security, it delivers the exact opposite: poverty, misery, inequality, and tyranny. Equality is achieved under socialism only in the sense that everyone is equal in his or her misery. …Socialism does not work because it is not consistent with fundamental principles of human behavior. …it is a system that ignores incentives. …A centrally planned economy without market prices or profits, where most of the property is owned or controlled by the state, is a system without an effective incentive mechanism to direct economic activity. …The strength of market-based capitalism can be attributed to an incentive structure based upon the three Ps: (1) Prices determined by market forces, (2) a Profit-and-Loss system of accounting, and (3) Private Property Rights. The failure of socialism in countries like Venezuela can be traced directly to its neglect of these three incentive-enhancing features.

Here’s some of what Mark wrote about socialism and prices.

The only alternative to a market price is a government-imposed price that always transmits misleading information about relative scarcity. Inappropriate behavior results from a controlled price because false information is transmitted by an artificial, non-market price. …The situation in socialist Venezuela provides a current example of the chaos and inefficiencies that are guaranteed to result from government price controls. As could be easily predicted, the widespread price controls imposed by the socialist regime in Venezuela in recent years led to chronic shortages of basic goods like milk, flour, rice and toilet paper, and long lines of customers waiting for hours to buy groceries at stores that frequently have mostly empty shelves.

Here are excerpts from his analysis of socialism and profits.

A profit system is an effective monitoring mechanism that continually evaluates the economic performance of every business enterprise. The firms that are the most efficient and most successful at serving consumers are rewarded with profits. … the profit system provides a strong disciplinary mechanism that continually redirects resources away from weak, failing, and inefficient firms toward those firms that are the most efficient and successful at serving consumers. …Under central planning, there is no profit-and-loss system of accounting to accurately measure the success or failure of various firms and producers. Without profits, there is no way to discipline firms that fail to serve the public interest and no way to reward firms that do. … Instead of continually reallocating resources towards greater efficiency, socialism falls into a vortex of inefficiency and failure.

And here are portions of what he wrote about socialism and property rights.

The failure of socialism around the world is a “tragedy of commons” on a global scale. …When assets are publicly owned, there are no incentives in place to encourage wise stewardship. While private property creates incentives for conservation and the responsible use of property, public property encourages irresponsibility and waste. …Public ownership encourages neglect and mismanagement. …Venezuela today is moving in the opposite direction. Under Hugo Chavez, the private property and assets of foreign-owned oil companies from the US, France, and Italy were nationalized and converted to state-owned, state-managed assets. The results were completely predictable: corruption, lack of investment, deteriorating capital assets, mismanagement and a sharp and ongoing decline.

His conclusion is especially powerful.

By their failure to foster, promote, and nurture the potential of their people through incentive-enhancing institutions, centrally planned, socialist economies deprive the human spirit of its full development. Socialism fails because it kills and destroys the human spirit… Programs like socialized medicine, free college, guaranteed jobs, free housing, and living wage laws will continue to entice us… But those programs, like all socialist programs, will fail in the long run…because they ignore the important role of incentives. …Socialism is being repackaged and recycled by today’s left-leaning politicians including Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez and is being taken seriously by a new young and gullible generation, many who weren’t even alive when the historic events of the 1980s and 1990s occurred including the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the lessons from history about the defects, deficiencies, and failures of socialism are very clear. As we’ve learned from countless examples throughout history, including now Venezuela, the main difference between capitalism and socialism is this: Capitalism works.


The observation that capitalism works and socialism fails is the point of my two-question challenge for my left-leaning friends.

To be sure, my challenge applies to conventional leftists as well as all varieties of socialists.

The advocates of bigger government surely should be required to show at least one example of how their policies work in the real world. But they can’t.

I’ll close by sharing this wonderful video of Dan Hannan explaining why liberty is better than socialism.

If you enjoyed that video, you can also watch Hannan in action here and here.

P.S. If you want to laugh at socialism, check out this collection.

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Ever since 2010, I’ve been pointing out that Venezuela is a horrifying and tragic example of what happens when the private sector in a country is almost completely suffocated by excessive government.

And with the country now in a death spiral, you would think it’s a perfect time for further commentary. I sometimes wonder, though, what I can write that isn’t ridiculously repetitive.

But a couple of recent conversations have convinced me of the need to address two points.

First, it’s important to emphasize that not all statism is created equal. When writing recently about Denmark, I created a chart to show how that country was much more pro-market than France. And that same chart showed that France was much more capitalist than Greece.

And guess which country was the most statist? If you said Venezuela, you’re right.

And the lesson from this data is that the degree of statism matters. Venezuela is a total mess because of total statism, Greece is in trouble because of lots of statism, France is anemic because of run-of-the-mill statism, and Denmark does okay because it’s only statist in one area (fiscal policy).

Imagine you were a teacher and these countries were students. Here are the grades you’d assign for economic policy.

F – Venezuela
D – Greece
C – France
B – Denmark

Second, I want to answer a question that often gets asked, which is how long can the current government survive?

Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer. That’s partly because bad policy doesn’t cause overnight collapse (Adam Smith noted more than 200 years ago, “there is great deal of ruin in a nation”).

Venezuela historically has propped up its statist regime with oil revenue, but that’s shrinking as an option because of government incompetence.

Thousands of workers are fleeing Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, abandoning once-coveted jobs made worthless by the worst inflation in the world. …Desperate oil workers and criminals are also stripping the oil company of vital equipment, vehicles, pumps and copper wiring, carrying off whatever they can to make money. The double drain — of people and hardware — is further crippling a company that has been teetering for years yet remains the country’s most important source of income. …Venezuela is on its knees economically, buckled by hyperinflation and a history of mismanagement. Widespread hunger, political strife, devastating shortages of medicine and an exodus of well over a million people in recent years have turned this country, once the economic envy of many of its neighbors, into a crisis.

At the end of the day, the regime can rely on force. And Venezuela’s politicians cleverly have put the army in charge of graft and shakedowns, thus earning at least temporary loyalty.

Venezuela’s military has come to oversee the desperate and lucrative water trade as reservoirs empty, broken pipes flood neighborhoods and overwhelmed personnel walk out. Seven major access points in the capital of 5.5 million people are now run by soldiers or police, who also took total control of all public and private water trucks. Unofficially, soldiers direct where drivers deliver — and make them give away the goods at favored addresses. President Nicolas Maduro’s autocratic regime has handed lucrative industries to the 160,000-member military as the economic collapse gathers speed, from the mineral-rich region of the Arco Minero del Orinoco to top slots at the state oil producer to increasingly precious control over food and water.

Moreover, it’s difficult for people to revolt since the regime has followed the totalitarian playbook and banned private guns.

So it’s no surprise that many disaffected people (the ones who otherwise might revolt) are simply escaping the country.

Hundreds turn up each day, many arriving penniless and gaunt… Once they cross, many cram into public parks and plazas teeming with makeshift homeless shelters, raising concerns about drugs and crime. The lucky ones sleep in tents and line up for meals provided by soldiers — pregnant women, the disabled and families with young children are often given priority. …this is happening in Brazil, where a relentless tide of people fleeing the deepening economic crisis in Venezuela… The tens of thousands of Venezuelans who have found refuge in Brazil in recent years are walking proof of a worsening humanitarian crisis that their government claims does not exist. …more Venezuelans are leaving home each month than the 125,000 Cuban exiles who fled their homes during the 1980 Mariel boat crisis.

And the ones who haven’t left still have some options besides starve or revolt.

A few years ago, there were so many donkeys, or burros, in the Venezuelan state of Falcón that they were a problem — herds everywhere, causing highway crashes and blocking airport runways. But over the past three years, the herds have shrunk dramatically as thousands of burros have been slaughtered for their meat by Venezuelans suffering through a near-famine. …The collapse of the Venezuelan economy is radically changing the eating habits in the oil-producing country, where large sectors of the population are being forced to pick through garbage and slaughter domestic animals to sate their hunger. …The clandestine slaughter of the animals also has become a sanitary and environmental problem, Stefaneli added. There are no sanitary controls, and the burro has been disappearing from its native habitats. …Years back, residents of Paraguana used to eat goat, fish and beef. And when those were in short supply they ate rabbits, grains and even iguanas. Burro meat was not liked because it’s tough and smells, even from far away, according to residents who have eaten it. But it has become a necessity for many people.

The bottom line is that Venezuela is in free-fall, but I don’t know where the bottom is. And I don’t know what will happen when the country hits rock bottom.

But if you hold a gun to my head, I’ll predict that the regime somehow collapses in 2020.

P.S. The silver lining of Venezuela’s dark cloud is that we have some grim humor from inside and outside the country.

P.P.S. Venezuela is such a disaster that even the World Bank acknowledged Chile’s market-oriented system is far superior.

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Paul Krugman has butchered numbers when writing about fiscal policy in nations such as France, Estonia, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Today, we’re going to peruse his writings on Denmark.

Here’s some of what he wrote earlier this month.

Denmark can teach us…about the possibilities of creating a decent society. …Denmark, where tax receipts are 46 percent of GDP compared with 26 percent in the U.S., is arguably the most social-democratic country in the world. According to conservative doctrine, the combination of high taxes and aid to “takers” must really destroy incentives both to create jobs and to take them in any case. …what Denmark shows is that you can run a welfare state far more generous than we do – beyond the wildest dreams of U.S. progressives – and still have a highly successful economy. Indeed, while GDP per capita in Denmark is lower than in the U.S. – basically because of shorter work hours.

And here’s what he wrote a couple of days ago.

American politics has been dominated by a crusade against big government; Denmark has embraced an expansive government role, with public spending more than half of G.D.P. American politicians fear talk about redistribution of income from the rich to the less well-off; Denmark engages in such redistribution on a scale unimaginable here. …Conservative ideology says that Denmark’s policy choices should be disastrous, that grass should be growing in the streets of Copenhagen. …But if Denmark is a hellhole, it’s doing a very good job of hiding that fact: I was just there, and it looks awfully prosperous. …The simple fact is that life is better for most Danes than it is for their U.S. counterparts.

Interestingly, Krugman acknowledges that Denmark isn’t really socialist. Instead, it simply has a big welfare state.

But is Denmark socialist? …Denmark doesn’t at all fit the classic definition of socialism, which involves government ownership of the means of production. It is, instead, social-democratic: a market economy where the downsides of capitalism are mitigated by government action, including a very strong social safety net. …The simple fact is that there is far more misery in America than there needs to be. Every other advanced country has universal health care and a much stronger social safety net than we do.

He thinks that is a good thing, of course, and was making the same argument (using the same headline) in 2015.

…the Danes get a lot of things right, and in so doing refute just about everything U.S. conservatives say about economics. …Denmark maintains a welfare state — a set of government programs designed to provide economic security — that is beyond the wildest dreams of American liberals. …working-age families receive more than three times as much aid, as a share of G.D.P., as their U.S. counterparts. To pay for these programs, Denmark collects a lot of taxes. …Overall, Denmark’s tax take is almost half of national income, compared with 25 percent in the United States. …It’s hard to imagine a better refutation of anti-tax, anti-government economic doctrine, which insists that a system like Denmark’s would be completely unworkable.

As far as I can tell, all his numbers about Denmark are accurate, but his analysis is wrong.

He wants readers to believe that the lesson from Denmark is that there are no adverse economic consequences when nations impose a big welfare state and high taxes.

But that’s not what Danish economic history tells us. As with other Nordic nations, Denmark became a rich nation when government was relatively small and taxes were modest.

And we know from historical data that economic performance significantly weakened after the fiscal burden of government was increased.

Moreover, lawmakers are now trying to restrain government spending.

The first thing to realize is that Denmark, as are the other Nordic countries, quite free markets, apart from their welfare state transfers and high government consumption. They tend to get rather high rankings on measures of the most free economies in the World. …Protection of property rights and the integrity of the legal system are very high by international standards, as is the soundness of the monetary system… Denmark has a long tradition for free trade… Credit markets are among the less regulated internationally. During the recent financial crisis, tax payers did not have to subsidize banks, and some banks were allowed to fail. The Danish labor market is very flexible: There is no legislated minimum wage, and there are few restrictions on hiring and firing.

Here’s the part that is a must-read.

Denmark did not become a rich country recently. …Danish per capita GDP relative to other countries reached a maximum 40-60 years ago… Denmark caught up to and overtook “old Europe” in the fifties, while it narrowed its gap to the US and other Western offsprings until the early 1970s, when the process of catching up came to a hold. …At the time Denmark became rich relative to the rest of the World, it was not a welfare state. In fact, Denmark has historically been a low tax country by international standards. Until the 1960s, the Danish tax revenue to GDP ratio was at the same level as the US, and lower than the British.

Unfortunately, policy veered in the wrong direction in the late 1960s, with very adverse consequences.

The sharp divergence in the Danish tax level really occurred in the second half of the 1960s, when first a left wing coalition government and then a right wing one increased the tax to GDP ratio by some ten percentage points. …government spending was to a large extent driven by increases in tax revenue stemming from the introduction of VAT and withholding taxes on wage income. …the welfare state attracted new clients and new programs were added, the economic crisis lead to increasing unemployment… By the early 1980s the economy was in very bad shape, with high unemployment, an inflationary deflation spiral, a huge and widening government deficit.

I can’t help but call your attention to Otto’s observation about how the VAT enabled a far larger burden of government.

But let’s not get sidetracked.

This chart shows how the tax burden in Denmark diverged from the United States.

So what’s the bottom line?

Denmark first became rich, and then introduced the programs, which make up the welfare state. The huge increase in government spending has been accompanied by deep structural problems, which has made it necessary to reform the Danish economy and welfare state ever since. It can hardly be claimed that introducing the welfare state made Denmark rich; rather it was the other way around. Denmark first became rich, and then authorities began to redistribute some of the wealth.

Amen. I made the same point back in 2011.

Writing for PJ Media, Tyler O’Neil reviews the good and bad in Denmark and also echoes Otto’s analysis.

A deeper look at the history and current affairs of Denmark and the surrounding countries tells a different story, however. These countries’ benefits arguably spring from their free-market pasts, not their brief dalliance with big government. …During the early 1900s and following the Great Depression, Scandinavia’s small government and free markets fostered a culture of hard work that paid huge dividends in terms of prosperity.

Unfortunately, starting about 50 years ago, Denmark (like many other nations in the region) adopted an expensive welfare state. With bad results.

…the 1960s – 1990s expansion of welfare states actually held the Nordic countries back. After their experiment with socialistic welfare states, “Nordic citizens now have unusually high levels of sickness absence (despite being healthy societies), high youth unemployment and a poor record for integrating migrants into the labour force,” Sanandaji explains. Big government has weakened the strong culture which enabled welfare states in the first place… In 2013, roughly 240,000 people — nine percent of the potential work force — were receiving disability checks, and about 33,500 of them were under 40.

I fully agree. Denmark’s welfare state has created a problem. Simply stated, there are too many people who depend on government compared to the number of taxpayers who finance government.

I sometimes use the example of how many people are pulling the wagon compared to the number of people riding in the wagon. The Danish version uses Viking ships.

Fortunately, now there’s an effort to move back in the right direction.

Denmark now outranks even the United States as a good place to do business. …In 2013, it reduced early-retirement plans, and cut the term for unemployment benefits from four years to two. …In recent years, all the Nordic countries have decreased their corporate tax rates — each one is lower than in the United States. They also support free trade, unlike American Socialists.

Let’s look at some specific examples of how Denmark is trying to undo the damage of excessive government.

Bloomberg reported last year about the ongoing effort to reduce the nation’s fiscal burden.

When a European government raises the pension age and makes cuts to welfare programs, it’s usually because of dire finances. In Denmark’s case, it’s because of ideology. …Driving the new government’s push is a desire to finance a major round of income tax cuts. “We want to promote a society in which it is easier to support yourself and your family before you hand over a large share of your income to fund the costs of society,” the government of Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen wrote in its manifesto. It’s all part of a Danish drift toward the political right… Reforms introduced by successive governments over the years have already ensured that Denmark’s expensive welfare state is sustainable for years to come, says Torben M. Andersen, a professor of economics at the University of Aarhus and a former government adviser. These include raising the retirement age to 67 years from 65 years by 2025.

Denmark is also cutting back on college subsidies.

As one of a handful of countries that offers free tuition to college students, Denmark grants students enormous freedom… But some Danes, especially older citizens already in the labor force, say the extra freedom can eliminate a crucial sense of urgency for 20-somethings to become adults. The country now deals with “eternity students” — people who stick around at college for six years or more without any plans of graduating, solely because they don’t have any financial incentive to leave. …The country has made some headway to counter eternity students. In 2015, the Danish government proposed and passed an amendment to the Study Progress Reform… Jakobsen said the amendment has definitely reduced the trend of eternity students.

Now let’s get to my contribution to this discussion.

A few years ago, I created a “statism spectrum” to show how countries differ when looking at total economic freedom (fiscal policy, trade policy, regulatory policy, monetary policy, and quality of governance).

And I pointed out that nations with onerous fiscal burdens can still rank relatively high if they have a very pro-market approach in other areas.

But I have to confess that my spectrum was a back-of-the-envelope exercise. I simply drew a line and then added six countries.

Time for some rigor. I downloaded the latest scores from the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World and created this chart showing the relative ranking of all the countries (divided by category). As you can see, the United States and Denmark are both in the top category and they both have very similar levels of overall economic liberty.

And to put those numbers in context, here’s the same chart, but also showing France, Greece, and Venezuela.

In other words, there’s a lot to admire about Denmark. Yes, taxes are onerous and the burden of spending is still too high, but it’s nonetheless one of the most market-oriented countries in the world because of laissez-faire policies in other areas.

My bottom line is that Paul Krugman is right to praise Denmark.

My only gripe is that he likes the one thing that they’re doing wrong and overlooks all the things that make the country a relative success.

Moreover, he ignores all the recent efforts to reduce the fiscal burden of government, probably because that would require him to acknowledge that large public sectors are bad for growth.

P.S. Denmark is way ahead of the United States in its market-friendly, savings-based approach to retirement.

P.P.S. Denmark also ranks above America in protecting the right of private property.

P.P.P.S. But the United States does rank above Denmark when all policies are part of the equation, which presumably helps to explain why Americans are richer. And that also is probably why Danes in America earn a lot more than Danes in Denmark.

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When Crazy Bernie became a national political phenomenon back in 2015, I pointed out that the Vermont Senator isn’t actually a socialist.

As I remarked in this brief interview with Melissa Francis, the technical definition of socialism involves government ownership and control over the “means of production.” In other words, policies such as collective farms and government factories.

It’s possible that Bernie Sanders secretly supports those policies, but his public positions are conventional statism – i.e., lots of redistribution, cronyism, and intervention.

Those policies are destructive and harmful, to be sure. Just think about basket-case economies such as Greece and Venezuela.

But not all left-wing economic policies are socialism. Which was the point I made two years ago when I put together this diagram.

As you can see, I think Sen. Sanders belongs on the far left, but he represents a different strand of statism. At least when compared to conventional socialists or totalitarian socialists.

And I categorize the Nordic nations as “rational leftists” to provide a benchmark (even though those countries are very pro-market by global standards, thanks to their laissez-faire approaches to trade, regulation, etc).

I”ll close by acknowledging that language does evolve. So perhaps I’m being pedantic by drawing a distinction between ordinary Bernie-style leftism and socialism. After all, I doubt 57 percent of Democrats and 16 percent of Republicans actually favor collective farms and government-run companies (at least I hope not).

P.S. Modern leftists don’t want to end private ownership, but they do want the government to control the economy. That approach was given a test last century.

P.P.S. For examples of socialism humor, click here, here, herehereherehere, hereherehereherehere, hereherehere, here and here.

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In June 2017, I shared an image and made the bold claim that it told us everything we needed to know about government.

In July 2017, I shared a story and similarly asserted that it told us everything we needed to know about government.

In that grand tradition of rhetorical exaggeration, here’s a court case that tells us everything we need to know about government.

…a lawsuit arguing that Detroit students were being denied an education had been dismissed. …With the help of a public interest law firm, a handful of Detroit students charged in federal court that educational officials in Michigan — including Gov. Rick Snyder — denied them access to an education of any quality. …Student cannot be expected to learn when they are simply “warehoused for seven hours a day” in “an unsafe, degrading, and chaotic environment” that is a school “in name only.” …almost 99 percent of the students are unable to achieve proficiency in state-mandated subjects. Last year, the state moved for dismissal, arguing that the 14th Amendment contains no reference to literacy. …U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy III agreed with the state. Literacy is important, the judge noted. But students enjoy no right to access to being taught literacy. All the state has to do is make sure schools run. If they are unable to educate their students, that’s a shame, but court rulings have not established that “access to literacy” is “a fundamental right.”

I’m not a lawyer, so maybe the judge made the right decision. Indeed, I suspect it probably was the right outcome since a decision in favor of the suit may have resulted in some sort of judicial mandate to squander more money on failed government schools. And we have lots of evidence that additional funding would mean throwing good money after bad.

But I still feel great sympathy for the students and their parents. They are stuck with rotten schools that cost a lot of money.

They have been betrayed by government incompetence. Both Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams have explained how the system is rigged to benefit teacher unions rather than kids.

And even though most of the victimized children are minorities, the NAACP sides with the unions. Shame. The failed government school monopoly serves the interests of insiders, not students.

The only solution is school choice, as explained in this video.

P.S. Needless to say, the federal government shouldn’t play a role. Bush’s no-bureaucrat-left-behind plan didn’t work, and neither did Obama’s Common Core boondoggle. The best thing that could happen in Washington would be the abolition of the Department of Education.

P.P.S. There’s a lot we could learn about school choice and private schooling from SwedenChile, India, Canada, and the Netherlands.

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Shortly after the fiscal crisis began in Greece, I explained that the country got in trouble because of too much government spending.

More specifically, I pointed out that the country was violating my Golden Rule, which meant that the burden of spending was rising relative to the private economy.

That’s a recipe for trouble.

Unfortunately, thanks in large part to bad advice from the International Monetary Fund, Greek politicians decided to deal with an overspending problem by raising taxes.

Then doing it again.

And raising taxes some more.

And raising them again.

Then adding further tax hikes.

The tax burden is now so stifling that even the IMF admits the country may be on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve.

And establishment media sources are noticing. Here are some excerpts from a report in the Wall Street Journal.

Greece is…raising taxes so high that they are strangling the small businesses that form the backbone of its economy. …The tax increases have left Greece with some of Europe’s highest tax rates across several categories, including 29% on corporate income, 15% on dividends, and 24% on value-added tax (a rough equivalent of U.S. sales tax). Individuals pay as much as 45% income tax, plus an extra “solidarity levy” of up to 10%. Furthermore, workers and employers pay social-security levies of up to 27% of their salaries. …small and midsize businesses and self-employed people…are fighting the government in court over having to pay what they say is up to 80% of their average monthly takings in taxes and levies. Some also have to pay retroactive social-security contributions, to the point where professional associations say some of their members are having to pay more to the state than they make.

Paying more than they make? Francois Hollande will applaud when he learns that another nation has an Obama-style flat tax.

…economists and Greek entrepreneurs say heavy taxation doesn’t help. The tax burden is considered the most problematic factor for doing business in Greece, according to the World Economic Forum. “The tax burden creates a serious disincentive for economic activity. It mainly hits the most productive part of the Greek society… Aris Kefalogiannis, the CEO of olive-oil and food company Gaea, said the fiscal straitjacket is keeping highly qualified executives he would like to hire from coming to Greece. It has also made him more sparing with investments. …“But this abusive taxation is not backed by any actual reforms that would make the state efficient.”

Of course the state hasn’t been made more efficient. Why would politicians shrink government if higher taxes are an option?

It’s not as if Greek voters are poised to elect a Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher, after all.

In any event, all of the tax increases are having predictably bad effects.

Tax evasion has led to higher tax rates on those Greeks who can’t or won’t evade taxes. The so-called gray economy is estimated at 26.5% of GDP… “Overtaxation is a vicious circle, which is not fixing the problem,” said 40-year-old electrician Antonis Alevizakis. “Only a third of customers want a receipt. The incentive to avoid a 24% value-added tax surcharge is big for them.” …More than 100,000 self-employed professionals have closed their businesses since mid-2016, to avoid rising taxation and social-security contributions, according to Finance Ministry data. Some of these people stopped self-employment, while others turned to the gray economy. …tax consultant Chrysoula Galiatsatou said. “A financially active part of the population sees no reason to try to do more.”

Why “try to do more” when the government gets the lion’s share of any additional income?

And why even stay in the country when there are better (less worse) tax systems in neighboring nations? Indeed, Greece is one of the few nations to raise corporate tax rates as the rest of the world is taking the opposite approach.

Here are some of the details. It appears that Bulgaria is a preferred destination for tax exiles.

Greece’s direct competitors for investment in its poorer, southeastern region of Europe have much lower taxes. For that reason, many Greek businesses and professionals are migrating to neighboring countries such as Bulgaria and Cyprus. …Around 15,000 Greek companies are registered in Bulgaria. Greece’s Finance Ministry estimates that 80% of them have a registration number but no activity in Bulgaria, and are only there to avoid Greek taxes. “If I stayed in Greece I would most certainly be in jail by now,” said John Douvis, who used his remaining savings in 2015 to move his family’s furniture factory from Athens to Blagoevgrad in Bulgaria. In Greece, he said, “it’s almost impossible for a company to survive unless it evades tax.”

In other words, the problem is tax rates, not tax evasion.

Lower the rates and evasion falls.

Let’s wrap up today’s column with a final observation. The WSJ story states that there have been spending cuts in addition to tax increases.

That’s basically true, but net effect of the Greek fiscal crisis is that government has become a bigger burden, relative to private economic output. Here’s a chart, based on data from the IMF.

The bottom line is that Greek politicians did way too much spending last decade and now they’re augmenting that mistake with way too much taxing this decade.

P.S. To reward everyone who read to the end, here’s some Greek-related humor.

This cartoon is quite  good, but this this one is my favorite. And the final cartoon in this post also has a Greek theme.

We also have a couple of videos. The first one features a video about…well, I’m not sure, but we’ll call it a European romantic comedy and the second one features a Greek comic pontificating about Germany.

Last but not least, here are some very un-PC maps of how various peoples – including the Greeks – view different European nations. Speaking of stereotypes, the Greeks are in a tight race with the Italians and Germans for being considered untrustworthy.

P.P.S. If you want some unintentional humor, did you know that Greece subsidizes pedophiles and requires stool samples to set up online companies?

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I’ve been writing about proposed carbon taxes since 2012.

My message is simple and straightforward. It’s possible to design a carbon tax that is theoretically appealing. Simply use all the revenue to get rid of some other tax that causes greater economic harm, such as the corporate income tax.

Which is basically the same argument that leads some folks to like the value-added tax.

But my argument against the carbon tax (like my argument against the VAT) is that we shouldn’t give politicians a new source of revenue without some sort of up-front, non-reversible repeal of an existing tax.

And since that’s not possible, the only good carbon tax is a dead carbon tax. However, it’s not very easy to kill this tax.

Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, working with several other organizations, just released four studies to boost the carbon tax.

Study #1.

Study #2.

Study #3.

Study #4.

And below you’ll see the most relevant table, which comes from study #4. It shows – in theory – what politicians might do with the additional money.

To add my two cents, I augmented the chart by numbering the options (in red) and then providing a short critique (in green).

In large part, I’m pointing out that “theory” may not resemble reality. For instance, how likely is it that politicians would impose this huge tax hike and allow all the funds to be used for deficit reduction (Option #3) instead of using a big chunk of the cash to buy votes?

Unfortunately, it’s not just academics and think tank people who are interested in this new tax.

The Wall Street Journal reports that a Republican congressman is pushing this levy.

A Florida Republican is set to propose a carbon-tax bill in Congress… The plan from Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who represents a Miami-area district…, would replace the federal gasoline tax with a tax on businesses including refineries, power plants and steel mills based on how much oil, coal and other fossil fuels they buy. The carbon tax would likely add three to 11 cents to the average pump price for a gallon of gasoline… he also views it as an infrastructure bill—it is crafted to raise additional revenue for bridges, roads and other projects—and as something he can sell as tax reform because it eliminates the gasoline tax. …Mr. Curbelo’s proposal would price carbon at $24 a metric ton and increase that every year by 2% plus the rate of inflation. It replaces the gasoline tax, which Mr. Cubelo frames as a version of tax overhaul. If enacted, his plan would raise an additional $57 billion to $106 billion a year.

Since Congressman Curbelo largely wants the new tax to fund bigger government, he’s proposing a version of Option #5.

Alex Brill of the American Enterprise Institute wants a different type of carbon tax.

One worthy candidate for the next tax reform effort is a cut in the most distortionary taxes in exchange for a tax on carbon emissions, combined with permanent carbon deregulation of the energy sector. …here are the three key components of a deregulatory carbon tax reform… Roll back burdensome carbon-related regulations. …The motivation is not disregard for the environment or climate, but distrust in the regulatory state as an efficient instrument. …A transparent carbon tax would…raise the price of certain consumer goods, including electricity and gasoline. That is a reality… It is, in fact, the policy’s intent. …a carbon tax would generate revenue that could be used to offset the cost of eliminating other taxes that impose greater harm on the economy. …Turning carbon tax revenues into universal welfare payments, as some have suggested, would not promote long-run economic growth.

The good news is that Alex wants Option #4 and is opposed to Option #2.

But that still doesn’t make it a good idea since Congress would never get rid of the corporate income tax.

Writing for the Washington Examiner, Michael Marlow also wants advocates of smaller government to support a carbon tax.

…conservatives should embrace the political opportunity it presents to reduce the harmful distortions imposed by other taxes and shrink the regulatory morass of federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency. conservatives can achieve these goals with a well-crafted revenue-neutral carbon tax. …Because it would trade “good” policy (a carbon tax) for “bad” policy (regulations and taxes with high excess burdens), it would make government more efficient. And packaging together the benefits from deregulation and tax reform would compensate the public for any adverse economic impact… Ensuring that a carbon tax would not simply finance more government spending requires a strict commitment by conservatives that any legislation establishing a tax on carbon emissions must also include, first, an equal tax cut, preferably targeting existing taxes that impose the highest excess burdens on the economy, and second, a significant rollback of carbon regulations. On these points, conservatives should not negotiate.

Like Alex Brill, Michael Marlow is proposing to do the wrong thing in the best way.

But Option #4 would only be acceptable if the corporate tax is being totally abolished. And that’s not what he’s proposing.

Which is why many sensible voices are explaining that there’s no acceptable argument for a carbon tax.

The Wall Street Journal, for instance, opined on this issue last year.

…never changing is the call from some Republicans to neutralize the issue by handing more economic power to the federal government through a tax on carbon. …George Shultz and James Baker…have joined a group of GOP worthies for a carbon tax… They propose a gradually increasing tax that would be redistributed to Americans as a “dividend.” This tax on fossil fuels would replace the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan and a crush of other punitive regulations. …A carbon tax would be better than bankrupting industries by regulation and more efficient than a “cap-and-trade” emissions credit scheme. Such a tax might be worth considering if traded for radically lower taxes on capital or income.

The WSJ shares my concern that Option #4 eventually would turn into Option #2 or Option #5.

…in the real world the Shultz-Baker tax is likely to be one more levy on the private economy. Even if a grand tax swap were politically possible, a future Congress might jack up rates or find ways to reinstate regulations. Another problem is the “dividend.” …the purpose of taxes is to fund government services, not shuffle money from one payer to another. No doubt politicians would take a cut to funnel into renewable energy or some other vote-buying program. The rebates would also become a new de facto entitlement… all methods of calculating a price for carbon are susceptible to political manipulation. The Obama Administration spent years fudging “social cost of carbon” estimates to justify its regulatory agenda. The tax rate would also be influenced by international climate models that have overestimated the increase in global temperature for nearly two decades.

A column in National Review is similarly skeptical.

…a small but persistent group of Republicans are trying to persuade conservatives to abandon…principles and embrace a national energy tax. …the Climate Leadership Council, a group led by James Baker and George Shultz…recently met with the Trump administration to encourage the adoption of a $40-per-ton carbon tax. …There is nothing free-market about their massive new tax hike… A carbon tax would punish users of natural gas, oil, and coal, which make up 80 percent of the energy we consume. This means that all American families would face higher electricity bills and gasoline prices. In fact, it’s estimated that the Council’s carbon tax would hike gasoline prices by 36 cents per gallon. …these hikes would have a disproportionate impact on poor and middle-class families, who spend a higher percentage of their income on energy.

The column discusses a specific plan that envisions a new entitlement (Option #2), warning that it eventually would trigger other types of new spending (Option #5).

Shultz and Halstead want to offset the tax by redistributing to the American people the $300 billion in anticipated revenue from the carbon tax. This is not practical in the real world. The idea that Washington politicians would perpetually refund a massive new revenue stream is incredibly naïve… The more likely scenario is that the government would eventually begin to spend the new revenue… Carbon taxes make energy more expensive. They also destroy jobs, particularly in the manufacturing sector.

Benjamin Zycher of AEI also has a skeptical assessment.

The view is widespread among economists that a (Pigouvian) tax on emissions would be more efficient than the regulatory approach because regulations impose a rough, one-size-fits-all framework for reducing emissions, while a tax allows each emitter to find the least expensive method of achieving its emissions goal. …The central problem with the consensus view is straightforward: The emissions goal is not fixed. Instead, it must be chosen. …Once government derives revenues from a system of carbon taxes, with ensuing political competition for those revenues, it is not difficult to predict that under a broad range of conditions the emissions reduction goal will be inefficiently stringent. That is, the tax rate will be too high.

And what about the notion that at least the revenues can be used to reduce other taxes?

Fanciful thinking, Zycher explains.

Why should we predict that the interests benefiting from the reduction in the corporation income tax would prove to be the marginal members of whatever congressional coalition imposes the carbon tax? That certainly is possible, but other outcomes seem far more likely. Some industries and geographic regions will bear disproportionate burdens attendant upon the carbon tax, and their votes will be necessary to enact it, particularly in the US Senate. …The list of potential supplicants is long indeed, each comprising some combination of constituencies to protect and campaign contributions and votes to offer.

For all intents and purposes, he’s explaining that “public choice” will turn a bad idea into a really bad reality.

Paul Blair of Americans for Tax Reform summarizes another new proposal for a carbon tax, which is largely a version of Option #2.

Just last month, seven-figure swamp lobbyists Trent Lott and John Breaux rolled out their support for a “simple and elegant” tax on carbon dioxide emissions. Realizing the insufficient appetite for a new “tax,” the former senators disingenuously relabeled it as a “fee.” Their $40 per ton carbon tax would immediately result in a 36 cent per gallon increase in the gas tax. Proponents of the tax admit that the price of home heating would increase by 22 percent and coal would increase by an average of 264 percent. The revenue generated from this tax would constitute the largest tax increase in U.S. history. To offset some of these astronomical increases in energy costs, the plan would create a new national federally managed welfare program, paying the average family of four $2,000 a year…a program of that scale would greatly exceed the size of Obamacare, giving Uncle Sam the responsibility of managing another $1.7 trillion over a decade.

His conclusion is not subtle.

It’s a plan designed to harm American manufacturers, raise prices for every single American consumer, and prop up uncompetitive expensive sources of energy like solar and wind. It places trust in the federal government to manage yet another massive welfare program, while giving the Left a significant opportunity to extract more and more money from taxpayers. Killing a carbon tax dead in its tracks isn’t only good policy, it’s a basic IQ test for modern day conservatives.

Since Republicans have failed many IQ tests in recent years (see here, here, and here), this doesn’t leave me overflowing with optimism.

Last but not least, Ryan Ellis opines on Cong. Curbelo’s carbon tax.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., will introduce a costly carbon tax bill on manufacturers… Curbelo’s own press release indicate that his carbon tax is structured to be a net tax increase. While it will eliminate the $0.184 per gallon federal tax on gasoline, the carbon tax will raise taxes higher (on net?) to the tune of $57 billion to $106 billion per year. Over a decade that’s a trillion dollar tax increase… Structurally, the Curbelo carbon tax is typical tax-and-spend liberalism. With the extra resources from the net tax increase, the plan proposes throwing money at so-called “infrastructure projects,” which comes right out of the 2009 Obama stimulus playbook.

As you can see, Ryan is not a fan of what Curbelo is proposing, which is a version of Option #5.

And Ryan also doesn’t want to enrich and empower the swamp.

While the bill by statute includes coal, petroleum, and natural gas, the EPA administrator is also given free rein to expand this carbon taxable list of industries at will. Imagine what an Obama administration would have done with that kind of power. …the Curbelo carbon tax also creates a United Nations NGO-style “National Climate Commission.” If that doesn’t sound scary enough, it also empowers this commission with an unlimited authorization to procure the services of “experts and consultants.” This section of the bill might as well be called the “DC swamp deep state full employment act.” How many of these taxpayer-funded “consultants” would an Obama-like administration use to enforce left-wing policies on the rest of us?

This is a long column, so let me conclude by noting that my opposition to a new tax has nothing to do with partisan politics. I’ve criticized Republicans for backing a carbon tax and I’ve also skewered Democrats for supporting that levy.

Heck, I’ve even gone after self-styled libertarians who advocate for this new tax. Especially when they pull a bait and switch, claiming initially that the revenue from a carbon tax could be used to lower other taxes, but then later admitting that they’re willing to acquiesce to a huge net tax increase.

Which confirms all my fears that a carbon tax would wind up being a gusher of money that would trigger an orgy of new spending in Washington.

P.S. I hope nobody will be surprised to learn that both the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development support higher energy taxes for the United States.

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